Human Sacrifice: What Did Abraham Say?
Some controversy has surrounded Abraham's claim about human sacrifice. Critics point out that most scholarship indicates human sacrifice was not known in Egypt during Abraham's lifetime.
But let's look a little more closely at what Abraham said about human sacrifice.
Now, at this time it was the custom of the priest of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to offer up upon the altar which was built in the land of Chaldea, for the offering unto these strange gods, men, women, and children.
Abraham 1:8At first, it might look like Abraham is calling human sacrifice a widespread practice throughout Egypt. But that's not what he said. Let's consider a couple questions.
First, is Abraham talking about the office of "priest of Pharaoh," and thus referring to a line of different people who have occupied that position, or is Abraham instead referring to a specific individual person who was "the priest of Pharaoh?" I would argue that Abraham is referring to a specific individual - the individual whose death is accounted for in verse 20. And since that priest was dead by the time Abraham wrote this in his memoir, Abraham does not tell us that it "is" the custom of the priest of Pharaoh, but instead tells us that it "was" the custom of the priest of Pharaoh. Abraham is speaking of human sacrifice in past-tense, implying it is no longer an issue.
If it was still an issue at the time of his writing, we would expect Abraham to introduce human sacrifice by saying, "Now, it is the custom..." instead of "Now, at this time it was the custom..."
Second, why does Abraham refer to it as a custom "of" instead of "for" the priest? If human sacrifice was a custom of Egypt, and the priest was merely performing his duties, we should expect Abraham to say it was a custom "for" the priest of Pharaoh, not "of" the priest of Pharaoh. But Abraham specifically tells us it was the custom of the priest, i.e. the priest's own personal custom or modus operandi. For instance, we would say it is customary that the President of the United States lives in the White House. But whose custom is it? It is a custom "of" the United States, and a custom "for" the President to do. But if a particular President has something they do which is not otherwise customary, we would call it a custom of their own. For instance, Ronald Reagan liked to give jars of jellybeans to visitors, so we could say "it was the custom of the President to give out jellybeans," but that does not imply that other Presidents gave out jellybeans.
Now, it's true that in verse 11 Abraham says that the priest performed human sacrifices "after the manner of the Egyptians." However, this seems to be a reference to the ritualistic details involved, and not a reference to the fact that humans were the ones being sacrificed. Most likely, this means the priest performed the human sacrifices in a manner ceremonially similar to Egyptian animal sacrifice.
A Conspiracy Theory: Searching For Onitah
22 And it came to pass that they did have their signs, yea, their secret signs, and their secret words; and this that they might distinguish a brother who had entered into the covenant, that whatsoever wickedness his brother should do he should not be injured by his brother, nor by those who did belong to his band, who had taken this covenant.
23 And thus they might murder, and plunder, and steal, and commit whoredoms and all manner of wickedness, contrary to the laws of their country and also the laws of their God.
24 And whosoever of those who belonged to their band should reveal unto the world of their wickedness and their abominations, should be tried, not according to the laws of their country, but according to the laws of their wickedness, which had been given by Gadianton and Kishkumen.
Helaman 6:22-24From what Abraham has told us, this priest of Pharaoh was a particularly bad person. What more do we know about him? There's a good chance that the title "priest of Pharaoh" refers to the position of vizier. The vizier basically ran the government. He could command forces and he could travel far and wide.
And, of course, Abraham tells us the priest of Pharaoh was also the priest of Elkenah. And in verse 7 it appears that it was in his capacity as priest of Elkenah that he was sought after to take away Abraham's life. But if we are talking about the vizier, then it's difficult to see how he could have any additional functioning positions in the government, since they would all be irrelevant in comparison with his vizier position.
And this is where the conspiracy theory comes in. What if the priest of Elkenah was part of a secret combination? What if the name "Elkenah" is one of the secret words, as described in Helaman 6:22? What if Abraham was tried, "not according to the laws of their country, but according to the laws of their wickedness," as described in Helaman 6:24?
Let's hold that thought.
Who was Onitah? He is described in verse 11 as "one of the royal descent directly from the loins of Ham." Yet, despite him being a royal figure, his daughters were killed by the priest of Pharaoh. Or, perhaps they were killed precisely because Onitah was a royal figure, which made them a threat.
If Abraham is telling us that Onitah was a previous Pharaoh, we can conceivably find him by his name. He was contemporary with Abraham, which places him at about 2000 B.C. As we look through the list of Pharaohs, we see throne names like "Sehetepibre," "Kheperkare," "Sankhtawyef," etc. None of those names really resemble "Onitah." But one name on the list is harder to rule out, and that is Nebta (a short form of Neb-tawy-re, also knows as Mentuhotep IV). Nebtawy means "Lord of the two lands," and is a title which can be applied to all of the Pharaohs, however Mentuhotep IV used it not merely as a title but as his actual name. In fact, as a Pharaoh he had five names, and he used "Nebtawy" for three of his five names! And, interestingly, the fourth name, "Netjeru nebu," is also harder to rule out, which gives pause when one considers how easily the other Pharaohs can be ruled out.
If we drop the O in Onitah for the sake of comparison, we get Nitah vs. Nebta (or Nitah vs. Netje, if we use the Golden Horus name), which is actually pretty close, although not a guaranteed match. However, we have some leeway, considering how much is still not known about the pronunciation of Middle Egyptian language and how much is not known about the methods Joseph Smith and his scribes employed when rendering a word into English as "Onitah." We can't rule out Joseph Smith dropping the b arbitrarily, or the existence of unwritten vowels and other unknown sounds inherent in the Egyptian name (which might not be an exact match for the "O" sound, but O might have been a decent rendering of the sound in English).
Nebtawy-re (Mentuhotep IV) reigned from 1998-1991 B.C., which is the right timeframe.
Nebtawy-re (Mentuhotep IV) is thought to have died childless, which is consistent with Onitah's daughters being killed by the priest of Pharaoh.
Nebtawy-re (Mentuhotep IV) is assumed by some Egyptologists to have been killed and deposed by his vizier, Amenemhat.
This vizier, Amenemhat, was not of royal lineage, even though he obtained the throne. If he is the same vizier whom Abraham referred to as the priest of Pharaoh, it makes sense that Abraham continued referring to him only in his role as vizier ("priest of Pharaoh") instead of as Pharaoh, since as Abraham explains, in verse 20, "Pharaoh signifies king by royal blood," and Amenemhat had no royal blood. Notice Abraham does not say there was mourning on the part of Pharaoh, the king, but only in the “court” of Pharaoh. This reference to those of the court, without mentioning the king specifically, is consistent with the idea that the king himself, Amenemhat I, was the one killed. Abraham goes on to state that while "this king of Egypt" was descended from Ham, he was in the same category as "all the Egyptians" and of Canaanite blood (verses 21-22), as opposed to Abraham's description of Onitah being "one of the royal descent directly from the loins of Ham."
Nebtawy-re (Mentuhotep IV) has never been found, neither his mummy nor burial place, which is consistent with him being killed and deposed.
Nebtawy-re (Mentuhotep IV) was not memorialized and was not included on the official king lists in Abydos, which is also consistent with him being killed and deposed.
Amenemhat was also killed, unexpectedly, which is consistent with Abraham 1:20 ("and smote the priest that he died").
Amenemhat moved the capital of Egypt far to the north, where he sought to restore the "old ways" of Egypt, and to link himself to the early rulers.